/ 16 December 2022

Case over University of Johannesburg and academic freedom goes to court

‘Fighting Goliaths’: Colin Chasi is challenging his dismissal from the University of Johannesburg in court.


An important academic freedom case, Chasi v the University of Johannesburg (UJ), is before the North Gauteng labour court. This is as UJ is trying to have the case dismissed for a technical matter to do with how papers were served on it. 

Rather than dwelling on this technical matter, I will present the case as one that says something about ­justice where there is no fear of misusing scarce public resources.

My matter is of significance because it is the first case to go before the courts to protect the constitutionally enshrined principle of academic freedom — which is about the right of academics to protect their students and to speak as stewards of their disciplines.

I have had the remarkable support of advocate Ben Winks, Rupert Candy Attorneys and other lawyers who have been so horrified by the case that they have discounted fees or worked pro bono. 

My team and I are fighting Goliaths — a large university and a large law firm. So, it feels as though every little stone matters.

I was dismissed by UJ for requesting an investigation into matters related to the delivery of quality education, to transformation of the university, and to the protection of the health and well-being of academics in its faculty of humanities.

At the time of my dismissal in 2017, I was the first black professor in the department of communication and media studies. I worked 80 to 90 hours a week over many years to overcome the massification of universities and become a researcher of some significance. I led the department, through a period of transformation, to become one of South Africa’s most productive teaching and research departments.

A key concern I raised was that the then dean of humanities, Professor Alex Broadbent, was demanding that departments cease “harping on about needs”. This was as he was taking staff posts away from my department, which had less than one permanent academic for every 500 students. 

The dean instead gave additional resources to the department of philosophy whose staff-to-student ratio would not have been a concern at any university in the world. Further, the dean was creating a centre for the study of a field of philosophical interests that he credited himself with founding. At one point, Sandro Milo, a lawyer for UJ, declared: “He can do whatever he wants!” There were even claims that UJ does not have to address public needs.

Whenever academics are forced to keep silent, the truth about why students and systems achieve poor educational outcomes is not revealed. Instead, what often comes out are strident comments about how lazy students are.

To dismiss me from my job, UJ convened a disciplinary procedure. Claims made against me included that I was injudicious in my choice of words when saying things such as: it is “spitting in the face” of the poor when resources are not used optimally, and it is “crossing a line” when students and junior staff are treated as pawns in a personal feud.

For all this, the university has never been concerned about utterances by Broadbent. At one time Broadbent said to me: “Whenever I hear decolonisation, I hear de-Colin-isation”. Presumably, this was because I was a proponent for ensuring universities are relevant and innovative in ways that respond appropriately to contextual needs.

Many will not recall the names Ntombi Gladys Radebe and Veronica Leah Dhlamini. These two teachers suffered detriments to their careers in 2007 after blowing the whistle on matters they perceived to be harming pupils. 

Only in 2012, did the labour appeal court give these teachers relief. It overruled a 2009 labour court decision, which could have practically gutted the Protected Disclosures Act, which “seeks to address important constitutional injunctions regarding clean government and effective public service delivery”.

This matters here because I was dismissed using the debunked 2009 labour court judgement. The recommendation to sanction me specifically says: “The facts in Radebe were remarkably similar to the facts of this disciplinary hearing.”

Yet, the labour appeal court further said, the action taken against Radebe and Dlamini was “totally unjustified”. It hoped its judgment would express displeasure at how the appellants were treated. It intended that this judgment would “send a clear message to other employers that this court will not hesitate to come to the aid of employees who blow the whistle on unlawful and irregular conduct”.

I was also found guilty of gross insubordination — for raising concerns after ostensibly having been told not to do so. But I was never charged with gross insubordination, and so I was not afforded a chance to defend myself against this charge.

The chairperson of the disciplinary hearing decided against allowing my lawyers additional time to submit written legal arguments. The chairperson also reneged on a decision that all parties would be allowed to present oral closing arguments. 

In the upshot, the chair’s judgement against me included tens of pages of testimony from Broadbent, and a handful of pages referring to my testimony. The judgement ignores opening legal arguments presented by my legal team. It also upholds Broadbent’s views while largely ignoring the weight of hundreds of pages of written submissions.

The matter of denying me legal representation has echoes in another matter involving a student called Yolanda Dyantyi of Rhodes University. I will return to this later.

Perhaps to humiliate me into resigning from the university, the hearing against me was staged near a public concourse, in the offices of the dean against whom my concerns were raised. When I complained about this, the curtains and blinds were removed and lifted to further expose me to unjust public shaming. 

One does well to recall here how black people are inordinately subjected to dehumanising “perp-walks”. 

In so many ways the handling of the hearing against me recalls the Surgical Innovations v CCMA and Others, which was heard by the labour court in 2012. In that matter, advocate Wayne Hutchinson was found to have erred in not ensuring the hearing was heard at a neutral venue. Further, Hutchinson was found to have had conflicting commercial relationships that should have been fully disclosed.

The hearing against me was chaired by Hutchinson. Milo, the prosecutor, was then a partner at one of South Africa’s leading law firms, the British multinational Eversheds Sutherland. In 2017, while my disciplinary matter was underway, both the chairperson of the hearing and the prosecutor quietly took on similar roles at Rhodes University. 

There the hearings related to several young women who were put on trial following botched protests against rape culture. The defence officially complained that the latitude given to Milo by Hutchinson at Rhodes was evidence of bias in favour of the prosecution. At my hearing, similar latitude was given to Milo by Hutchinson, who variously described Milo’s badgering as just “a tactic”.

The infamy of the Rhodes matter is well understood if one looks at the judgement that Yolanda Dyantyi finally got in 2022.

Dyantyi, represented by pro bono lawyers, was dismissed before she could write her last exam. She would have been the first graduate in her family. The labour appeal court found that Hutchinson acted improperly when he followed Milo’s directions, which had the effect of improperly denying Dyantyi the right to legal representation. The most crucial hearing was scheduled on a day when her lawyers were at another court matter in another city.

There was no reaction to the news that Professor Nyasha Mboti was subjected to witness tampering. Hutchinson refused to hear evidence of this. UJ’s senate has not expressed itself on how such intimidation infringes on academic freedom. 

UJ has not even bothered to investigate a voice recording of Mboti being advised to either not testify in the matter or to get coaching on what to say from a senior representative of the university’s human resources department — who apparently approved Broadbent’s unlawful intervention.

UJ has also refused to investigate evidence that Broadbent knew before the hearing concluded how the case against me would be adjudicated. In a voice recording, at a time when Broadbent acknowledges the case was going badly against him, he was able to assert that there was a certainty that Hutchinson would rule for me to be dismissed.

The UJ human resources department, which is charged with ensuring that hearings are conducted fairly, only attended the first and last hearing days. The person who is responsible for this function in the HR department was instead, among other things, seemingly organising to suborn Mboti.

I write this with extreme reluctance and constraint. My motivation to write is the firm understanding that public scrutiny is the surest defence of the weak against misuse of public power. 

Without academic freedom the great gift of scholarly excellence is imperilled.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.